Story Submission: “Hope in the Darkness”

As part of my Creative Writing class–we were required to submit a project to the local college’s literary magazine the “Trestle Creek Review.” I had flipped through a couple issues online and although the submission page said it accepted all forms of fiction, I wrestled internally about if it was just saying that to be polite. All of my work up until this point has been genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, slap-stick zombie comedy. I didn’t feel like anything I had written was up to the task for submission.

And that was probably the best thing that I could have felt. I turned to my pile of stories and thought, “What do I have that I could submit?” I chose a story I had written for my Humanities class last semester and revised it with the help of my dear friend Dana. We also had coffee and spent a little time walking around the sleepy town of Cheney, Washington.

And now I wait. I don’t expect to be accepted, the literary magazine does not seem to publish material of the standard science fiction genre (four paragraphs about a writer arguing with a child about trains, yes), but I’d of course be thankful if I was. I don’t write contemporary fiction, I’m a genre writer (this is all something that I’ve learned to compartmentalize over the last year. There are rules and I’m expected to follow them and understand. Although I’ve also learned about myself that I’m a very passionate writer, and if I had to define myself now: I’d happily fall into that post-post-modernism genre that I’m now calling: “neo-post-modernism.” It’s a mix of modernism, post-modernism and a step toward sincerity. Except that I do it through genre fiction with dark fantasy, science fiction and comedy.

After that brief existential writing crisis, I’m proud to know my place in the literary world that is so vast. And now I know how to screw it up from the inside out! I’ll be sure to update in a month or two with my “Yeah, accepted!” or “No, rejected!” response.

About The Story

For my Humanities 101 class, our final project was a dreaded “group project.” Instantly the introvert in me slammed on the breaks, my stomach tied in a double-knot… and then I realized I’d been sitting with my roommate and two other delightful young women the entire semester. We immediately partnered up to a group of four and started talking. Since beginning the Humanities class together, I believe I can say truthfully that no one leaves that class the same as when they entered (nor should you in any class). We had all just come down from a World War II montage, having just finished a book by Viktor Frankl “Man’s Search for Meaning,” about surviving in Auschwitz and inventing logotherapy. We were a bit bleaker than we had been before, but much more raw around our hearts.

The conversation turned to social media, how our families and friends (and ourselves) were affected. Fallout 4 had just released and 3 of us had played or owned it, the same 3 of 4 who loved the new Mad Max films. So we immediately decided upon a Post Apocalyptic setting. We worked out some details: a female protagonist, a world without technology, and a “need” to cling to an old life even after it’s destroyed.

On a cold, rainy day in November we met in Corbin Park outside of Post Falls, Idaho. There we gathered together a sled and covered it in items: electronics, high heeled shoes, jewelery, a broken iPhone, a stuffed monkey. They represented things that people held on to, often at the risk of losing everything else. These were the items we wanted to show our main character (whom we started calling Hope) to cling to after the destruction of everything she held dear, a woman tethered to technology (not unlike ourselves). We wanted it to look and feel post-apocalyptic, so we covered her in layers and gave her a gas mask and goggles. The effect was really nice. My friend Catherine took the photographs and our friend Mariah was the model (see credits below).

This is the story that came out of our conversations:

Hope in the Darkness

Hope couldn’t remember the war or a time before it, a time when stark, blinking electronic lights pulled at her heartstrings and kept her so connected to the world. She couldn’t recall the glow of a computer monitor, the shrill sound of a cell phone or what it felt like to read a text message from someone she loved. She couldn’t remember the feeling of high heels, smooth lipstick or the sound of her cat’s gentle purr. All of life’s pleasures had been torn away in one bright white flash.

It was all gone now: her life before the war. Herself before the war.

Now, her reality was the cold, muddy hillside somewhere in Northern Idaho. Pine needles and dying leaves covered the forest floor. The smell of dirt and moss hung heavy in the air. The Spokane River roared somewhere in the background but she couldn’t hear it. All Hope heard anymore was a scratchy, white noise in her head. She hadn’t heard the sound of another voice since she had stumbled out of her parent’s bomb shelter. Built for some “Cold War” that never came and filled with munitions and food, it was the only thing that kept Hope alive when her parents never returned.

It could have been ten or fifteen years since she left the remains of her home. She lost track after the first year her calendar ran out. The last road sign she had seen had been the ruins of a city called Coeur d’Alene. It had taken her the entire Summer and Fall to drag her sled along the remains of Interstate 90. She hadn’t seen another living person in her entire journey. And yet, she continued forward, searching for signs of life among the rubble. Secretly, perhaps, she searched for a source of power, some semblance of the life she once knew.

Hope wiped the sweat from her brow and adjusted her grip on the wired cord that held her sled. She took a moment to catch her breath—but just a moment—she had to keep moving. Rain started to fall and the chill wind had long ago stolen the warmth from her jacket. Her layers of clothing became damp and her legs stiffened with each labored step forward.

She struggled across the muddy ground, her boots slipping with each step. She had followed a path obscured by pine needles and years of decay. It had been so hidden she had barely seen it from the road. She wanted to get under tree cover before nightfall and guessed she had only an hour of daylight left. Her stomach growled in protest at the thought of the journey toward the river.

Something rattled off the side of her sled and she paused, carefully rearranging the items she had carried for hundreds of miles. She mentally cataloged the contents of her sled, taking precaution that nothing else had fallen off. The TV was the heaviest and she shifted it to the side, re-centering it on the sled. A picture frame had fallen off and had been snagged in a power cord to a video game controller. Her hand trembled as she felt the familiar buttons press beneath her fingers. The picture frame was not broken, just a little muddied from the fall. She stared at the image and couldn’t recognize the faces behind the glass.

A black and white stuffed monkey stared up at her. She patted him on the head, made sure he was safe on the sled and continued down toward the river.

Her breath caught in her throat when she realized something was missing—her cell phone. At one time a top-of-the-line smart phone that never left her side, it made the journey with her, long ago having the screen smashed beyond repair. She recalled the first few days she had been on the road and had used the cell phone light to stifle her fear of the dark. As the nights went on and the battery died slowly, she had become less and less afraid. Eventually, as all the technology around her failed and she lost touch with everything that once resembled “normal,” a white noise crept into her head to fill the space.

The phone wasn’t on the sled. Her mouth went dry. She dropped the cord and backtracked her steps, head whipping from side to side, searching the wet ground. That the cellular device was obsolete didn’t occur to her; it was hers. She needed the feel of the screen, the presence in her hand, the memory of being connected. It hadn’t been just a phone for a long time. Just as tears fogged her vision—something glinted in the corner of her eye. She fell to her knees, hard against the rocks and plunged her fingers into the pine needles. She tore the phone from the greedy earth, wiped the broken screen with her sleeve and held it close. Hope stayed on the ground, clutching the phone, until the rain numbed the fear in her bones.

The sky was dark overhead by the time she had set up camp and built a respectable fire. She held her cell phone in one hand, running a finger along the broken glass. Blood smeared against the screen. Hope didn’t notice. Food had appeared near the fire. Tonight it was some faded aluminum can with a picture of a dog on it. The night before, when she took shelter in Coeur d’Alene, it had been a bag of dried fruits and nuts. Hope never knew where the food came from, but she had her suspicions—she looked to the stuffed monkey and smiled knowingly. He had taken care of her and kept her fed for a long time.

Hope stared at a screen that had been blank for nearly fifteen years. No static had danced across the cracked screen since before the war. Whatever sound she believed the TV made in order for her to sleep, it was all in her imagination. She pulled the stuffed monkey a little closer for warmth.

Firelight reflected from the TV screen. If she imagined hard, she could see something playing across the screen. As she began to drift off to sleep, she began to let go and decided to forget. Tomorrow, she’d wake up and leave the sled. She’d take the monkey, of course, he had protected her. But she’d leave the sled, the TV—even the phone. The stuffed monkey stared at her, firelight reflected in its dead plastic eyes. It was time. Time to let go.

The white noise faded away as sleep began to embrace her.

# # #

Something startled Hope awake. The noise in her head was silent. The river roared in her ears. She clutched at her head and cried out. Sound had finally returned—and with it, something so strange and unfamiliar, she didn’t understand.

Somewhere in the distance—a cell phone was ringing.

The stuffed monkey was gone.

Photo by Catherine Hodgkins; Model: Mariah BartlettPhoto Credit: Catherine Hodgkins / Model: Mariah Bartlett.

To see more of Catherine’s photography from this project, please click here.

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